Genre: Biography, Drama
Directed by: Ralph Fiennes
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Felicity Jones, Kristin Scott Thomas, Tom Hollander
It seems hard to believe that despite his work being ingrained on the very fabric of British culture since time immemorial, Charles Dickens has, for many, remained a figure shrouded in mystery. Yet here we find Ralph Fiennes, following on from his confident debut Coriolanus, a contemporary retelling of one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works, with an adaptation of Claire Tomalin’s fact-based account of Dickens’ affair with actress Ellen Ternan; the love of his later life until he died in 1870. As with his debut, The Invisible Woman brims with both style and substance, offering a fascinating insight in the life of one of literature’s literal geniuses and further proving the overwhelming talent of Fiennes as both an actor and director.
Told through flashbacks from the perspective of an older and wiser Ternan, the film chronicles the actress’s secretive affair with Dickens, exploring the impact it had on both their lives. Abi Morgan’s assured screenplay burns with the growing desire these two cautious lovers shared, building their romance slowly and with a knowing vagueness. The attraction is evident from their first meeting, yet much of the film’s first half is spent gradually laying the foundations of their affair; exploring the growing distance between Dickens and his wife Catherine, as well as Ellen’s desire to become a great actress despite minimal talent.
Dickens fell for Ternan because of her forceful character and educated background, which gave him far greater stimulus than his marriage did and in that eponymous role, Felicity Jones displays the power and authority of a shining British talent. Her young features suggest a childlike vulnerability, yet Ellen’s startling intelligence makes her a captivating central character. As her affair with Dickens develops, Ellen becomes conflicted with her role in his life, the film gently lifting the lid on a society particularly unbalanced in its gender equality. Ternan became unsure about whether the risks she was taking for a man of such untouched power would be worth the gain. Jones injects such scenes with a passionate fortitude that accentuates Ellen’s internal conflict, which in turn lends great poignancy to the scenes of Ellen in later life, where the memory of her affair still haunts her.
In front of the camera, Fiennes plays Dickens with energetic charm that makes it impossible not to gravitate towards him. The Dickens we meet is one of such intelligence and grandeur that we never doubt his capabilities to create such masterpieces as Oliver Twist and A Christmas Carol. Yet, away from the public eye Dickens is a man whose emotional cruelty and disdain for his wife, played by a devastating Joanna Scanlan, is quietly heartbreaking to see. As with Jones’ performance, a lot of the power comes from what is left unsaid by the performer; the author’s excessive wrath at his helpless wife as he builds a literal wall between his life and hers is a singularly shocking moment, expressed almost solely through Fiennes’ tiny hostile eyes.
Meanwhile behind the camera, Fiennes proves a deft hand at using the power of the image to explore the fragility of relationships. Rob Hardy’s wide-scoped shots capture the lavishness of the period and splendor of the scenery, but it’s in the film’s darker moments that the spark is truly lit. Fiennes observes the blossoming early romance between Dickens and Ternan with notable restraint, but captures the lover’s more intimate moments, both passionate and aggressive, in more affective close-ups of the face and eyes. Despite a period setting, such style grounds the film in a contemporary reality, forging a greater bond between the characters and audience and giving the story a distinguished confidence.
So swept up do you become in their relationship, that the story’s sporadic jumps to Ternan’s later years occasionally mar the film’s flow. While Jones’ poise makes for an elegant finale, such scenes would have been likely to offer deeper impact if they had been used to bookend the narrative instead of intertwine with it.
Slight qualms aside though, The Invisible Woman remains a terrific piece of period cinema. It’s a tale of love told with confidence and sublime performances, helmed by a director who’s gradually developing a particularly succinct style that leaves you, like one of Dickens’ most cherished creations, begging for more.